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Castroneves leads day lacking drama

INDIANAPOLIS -- An eclectic cast from George Clinton to Helio Castroneves did its best to inject some excitement into Pole Day for the 93rd Indianapolis 500.

While Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic were concluding their set on an infield stage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Castroneves was securing his third Indy pole with a late-afternoon run that drew cheers from the crowd of about 10,000. His effort knocked Penske Racing teammate Ryan Briscoe from the perch at the top of the speed charts he had occupied for most of the day and set into motion a busy -- yet anticlimactic -- final hour

Briscoe was one of 10 drivers who made qualifying attempts after 5 p.m. but ultimately, there really wasn't much drama. He ran slightly slower than his earlier run (224.083 mph vs. 224.131) but maintained second place on the grid as cars affiliated with Penske, Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Green Racing took nine of the 11 guaranteed starting spots.

Castroneves put his No. 3 Dallara-Honda into the field just before 1 p.m. with a 223.949 mph average that left him third behind Briscoe and Dario Franchitti after the first run through the qualifying order.

Both Penske drivers were later given the opportunity to make another run, and this time Helio wound up quicker, starting his run with a 225.405 mph lap and ending with a 224.864 mph average.

Conditions improved for speed in the late afternoon, with the first sunshine of the day and a strong west wind finally letting up.

Yet the Penske team was the only one able to capitalize, as AGR's Tony Kanaan (sixth place) and Ganassi's Franchitti (waiting in line when the 6 p.m. gun sounded) failed to mount a pole challenge.

"Obviously we have a competitive team because they both wanted to go," said team boss Roger Penske. "We had to give each of them a chance. We didn't want to lose those top two spots but it worked out fantastic for the team.

"These guys are competitive," Penske added. "Certainly people will look at it like we could have made a mistake. But these are guys we count on. They're the best and when you're running at the level of the Ganassi team and some of these other teams, you've got to give them that opportunity. That's why we're here."

Penske team manager Tim Cindric paid tribute to Castroneves, whose late run to the Indy pole in 2003 in even more severe conditions is part of Pole Day folklore.

"When I woke up this morning, saw the wind blowing like it was and saw the direction it was in, [it was like] when he sat on the pole here in 2003, I thought: 'You know what? We've got the guy to do this.'" Cindric said. "We just had to put it out for him, and he executed, for sure."

Castroneves was even more excited and animated than usual after his second run clinched the pole and the $100,000 prize that accompanies it. He's also been on a personal high after he and his sister, Kati, were found not guilty on April 17 in a federal tax evasion trial. There is still one outstanding conspiracy charge.

"Just being here is very special," he remarked. "The [tax evasion] trial definitely changed a little my perspective of life. I realized even more that I love racing and that it is my life. To be here is just a dream come true and I appreciate every day knowing that when I wake up in the morning."

The IndyCar Series dominated the action as expected, with Will Power qualifying the third Penske entry ninth. Franchitti and Scott Dixon were third and fifth for Ganassi, while Alex Lloyd was the day's final qualifier in a Ganassi car run by Sam Schmidt Motorsports.

Andretti Green's Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick qualified sixth, eighth and 10th.

Franchitti was pleased to land a front-row berth but disappointed he and the Ganassi team were unable to extract more speed from their car in the warmer afternoon conditions. He nominated Lloyd for best story of the day after the 2007 Indy Lights champion ran 222.622 mph in his first open-wheel action in almost a year.

Graham Rahal of Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing (fourth) and Mario Moraes (seventh for KV Racing Technologies) were the only interlopers among the Big Three teams.

Rahal's effort was particularly notable. He improved two positions by making a late run after the NHLR team executed a rapid pit-lane gearbox change.

Rahal also was under the pressure of knowing that he had no spare car back in the garage, teammate Robert Doornbos having crashed twice in the past 24 hours.

"People were starting to get in line and it ended up being a little bit tense because we had to make our qualifying attempt without a practice lap because of the time," said Rahal. "They were able to do a great job fixing everything so quickly and I was able to go out and put it on the second row."

Defending race and series champion Dixon summed up a day that pretty much fell flat for just about everyone.

"A bit of a frustrating day, but not terrible," he said. "It was one of those days when you try and chase the conditions and see what happens. Our car was consistent; we just didn't have the speed. Team Penske are a little bit ahead of us and they have been since day one.

"Pole gives you bragging rights for a couple of weeks, but the race will be different," he added. "That's the one that has a different paycheck."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.